Something fishy about this fishing expedition


Many would reckon that, what with one thing and another, the Cambridgeshire constabulary had enough on its plate. But no, it has embarked on an epic fishing expedition among journalists’ notebooks and tapes which, if successful, is bound to become the model for every police force in the land.

We should then find ourselves in a nightmare world. The reporter at the door or on the phone could, rather more credibly than Greg Kettle of Hot Metal, introduce himself as a member of Her Majesty’s Press, his every note and tape available to the CID and the CPS (and maybe the DSS and the CSA).

Cambridgeshire police have contacted newspapers and broadcast channels to demand an inventory of material that relates "in any way" to the Soham schoolgirls murder investigation.

Seven detectives stand ready to inspect responses from more than 400 journalists. If a simple request does not result in voluntary hand-over, then police threaten to go for a High Court order.

Now if police have good reason to believe that a specific notebook contains significant evidence, then of course it ought to be supplied in the interests of justice. But it is preferable for a judge to have so directed.

Sources need to be safeguarded, and we must avoid journalists being tagged as agents of the authorities. And if we dispute relevance or genuineness of motive, then the police must set out their case before the High Court.

But is the Cambridgeshire snoop as simple as represented? Or something sinister?

Is it really all about adding to existing evidence? Could it be that there has been pressure on this much-criticised force to come up with a damning dossier on the subject that so exercises the Lord Chancellor: media payment to witnesses?

The Editors’ Code of Practice already obliges editors to disclose such deals to prosecution and defence, should a recipient be cited as a witness. But this is not sufficient for the Cambridgeshire constabulary. Its questionnaire demands: "Have contractual arrangements been made between your company and any other third party with regard to this matter?"

Perhaps encouraged by the unconnected media page revelation that Fleet Street-smart reporters tape instructions from on high, could someone be hoping that a trawl might net an ill-advised order that could serve to puncture the campaign to keep Lord Irvine tame?

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